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Literary Essays

In Search of the Writer-Diplomat Tradition

Marcel Proust is forever being lost to myth, reduced either to a gossip who chronicled Parisian salons, or even worse, a withdrawn asthmatic overly sentimental for the past. This reduction makes no room for Proust’s admiration for technology or the diplomats and military men who made statecraft and war. Proust adored automobiles and was fascinated by German military aviation, and we find in Proust’s novels countless examples of his passion for military strategy, diplomacy and foreign affairs, which is personified in his character, the diplomat, Monsieur de Norpois.

Proust attended Sciences-Po, which had been founded to educate an elite for France’s civil and diplomatic posts. And though he developed a rich interest in relations between states, in the end, he knew a life of letters was his destiny. Proust biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, “The former pupil of the diplomatic section of the Sciences-Po never wanted to be a diplomat; yet he wrote the novel about diplomacy that those novelists who were diplomats—Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Gobineau, Giradoux and Morand—never wrote.”

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The writer-diplomat tradition, though largely ignored in the history of letters, has been critical to the development of many European and Latin American writers. Eight poets with diplomatic experience, including Octavio Paz and Czeslaw Milosz, have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tadié references France’s great tradition, which reached its apex in 1937 when 50 percent of the diplomats from the Quai d’Orsay (The French Foreign Ministry) were published authors.

Categories
Literary Essays

The Epistolary Insights of Aging Writers

One can only hope that our greatest writers today are carrying on significant email correspondences with one another–and that one day we’ll have access to these exchanges. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like this yet, no hint of The Collected Emails of David Foster Wallace or Christopher Hitchens: The Yahoo! Years Last fall I received an advanced copy of Samuel Beckett’s final volume of letters. I’d just written about Beckett for The Millions and was happy to continue thinking about this odd and fabulous Irishman.

I’d also been doing some thinking about aging, and was struck how Beckett’s legendary detachment–explored and cultivated since youth–had seemingly prepared him well for the challenges of aging. I got the kernel for an idea, tracked down some additional epistolary volumes: Saul Bellow’s letters and the fascinating correspondence between the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. My article appeared last month in The Atlantic under the heading Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers

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During the last month or so I also published two short stories in online literary journals. They are both chapters from a novel I recently completed. The first piece was titled “The Phenomenon” and published in The Courtship of Winds, and the second was “If it is Beautiful, it is Passing” in the The Furious Gazelle.